Spotlight on the Arakkonam airfield

Arakkonam (formerly Arkonam) is well known to railway followers because it is an important junction as well as electric loco shed, but has recently come into prominence because the inundation of Chennai airport caused some commercial flights to be operated from there. To be precise, this is the NAS (Naval Air Station) at Arakkonam which the Navy calls INS Rajali.

Most basic information can be seen here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/INS_Rajali

Although it started off as an IAF base in the 1940s, it was abandoned soon after WW2 and was reactivated for the long-range reconnaissance aircraft of the Navy during the late 1980s. The TU-142s and now the Poseidon P-8s have made good use of the 4.1 km runway which has been claimed to be the longest military runway in Asia.

Here you can see the locations of Chennai international airport (MAA), IAF Tambaram and INS Rajali marked with the small gold stars.

Chennai area

One can see that INS Rajali is about 50 km west of MAA, while IAF Tambaram is only 10 km away. At least there is no chance of a confused airline pilot landing his 747 at INS Rajali by mistake, though this has happened once at Tambaram in recent years.

Here is a closer view of INS Rajali:

INS Rajali

Though it is not very clearly shown, the railway line from Chengalpattu runs along the highway right by the boundary wall of the base. The Railways have been planning to electrify this section for a long time but the Navy have objected to the presence of the traction equipment being an obstacle to the flight path. Thus an alternative line is being built further from the airfield, but this seems to have dragged on for several years.

The diverted rail line was completed in mid-2019. EMU trains could now run all the way from Chengalpattu to Arakkonam. It was proposed to run circular EMU services on the Chennai-Chengalpattu-Arakkonam-Chennail in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions.

This new line is not shown in this map.

This is not the first time that military airfields have been used a a backup. Sulur for Coimbatore and Avantipur for Srinagar are other examples. The inaugural flight of Jet Airways to Coimbatore did land at Sulur by mistake. Apart from the Saudia 747 which wrongly landed at Tambaram, there have been several incidents including a mid-air collision and another which totalled a DC-8 which were caused by the proximity of BOM to Juhu. More about these later.

With all these movements of heavy aircraft, it is fortunate that this airfield has not seen a major aviation accident yet. However, India’s experimental AWACS on an Avro frame did crash a few km away in 1999, apparently putting an end to DRDO’s efforts in that direction.

The forgotten electric locomotives of Pakistan

The railways of Pakistan have been going through a decline in the last few years for a variety of reasons, mainly government apathy and the lack of funds for modernization. One result of this has been the abandoning of whatever little electrified track it had.

By 1966, the 290-km route between Lahore and Khanewal had been electrified on 25 KVAC. 29 locomotives of 3000 hp rating were acquired from what was then known as British Rail Traction (including the conglomerate AEI and English Electric). These were classified as BCU30E and were numbered 7001-29. Here is one which is currently lodged at the museum at Golra Sharif (north of Rawalpindi):

http://pakistanrail.tripod.com/photos/index.album/electric-locomotive?i=26&s=1

And one of the few which were still running in 1996:

http://www.irfca.org/gallery/Foreign/Ziegler/Pakistan/HyderabadMalakwal/khanewal_bcu30.jpg.html?g2_imageViewsIndex=1

In the initial years it was planned to extend electrification towards Rawalpindi and Peshawar but the presence of a few tunnels caused second thoughts. Another place where electrification would have been useful was the Bolan Pass route up to Quetta with its 1:25 gradient, the steepest main line in South Asia. Power shortages put an end to any further plans for electrification.

By the 2000s the traction lines on only one of the two  tracks were functioning. By 2009 the locos were showing their age and had been taken off passenger duties. The few which were functional were used on short goods trains. Here you can see one of these at Sahiwal (formerly Montgomery); one of the few videos of these locos available on the net. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ56AcTBAL0

By 2011, it was decided to stop electric services: http://tribune.com.pk/story/124828/pakistan-railways-electrical-locomotives-wrapped-up/

But even in 2013 the media felt that extending electrification would be a good idea even with the limited locos and infrastructure. The theft of overhead wire was cited as one reason for abandoning electrification. On the other hand India and numerous other countries are extending electrification, which is well known to the media there. As in India, there is alleged to be a diesel lobby plotting against electrification.

http://nation.com.pk/editors-picks/23-Aug-2013/pr-s-electric-locos-turn-into-scrap-rusting-in-engine-shed

This TV report (in Urdu) is critical of the government’s decision, and also shows the railway worker’s reactions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBtDLBj4tH4

But it looks as if it will be a long time (if ever) when we can see electric locos running in Pakistan.

Reference: a good general description of most locos presently seen in Pakistan can be seen here:

http://pakistaniat.com/2007/05/19/pakistan-railways-3000hp-iron-horses-train-engines/

Even in 2019, current videos on Youtube show the traction masts still in position although the overhead wires have been removed.